Vote for Mono

Besides their nominations for 2007 Grammy awards, what do Mary J. Blige, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, the Flaming Lips, the San Francisco Symphony and Lynn Marie and the Boxhounds have in common? 

Answer:  Without a doubt, all their Grammy-nominated recordings were made in stereo — stereophonic sound, which, according to Wikipedia

is the reproduction of sound, using two or more independent audio channels, through a symmetrical configuration of loudspeakers, in such a way as to create a pleasant and natural impression of sound heard from various directions, as in natural hearing. 

Note the loaded language in this definition:  Stereo is superior — “pleasant,” and “natural.”  Anything else is presumably unpleasant and unnatural.

To achieve this “natural” effect,

Stereophonic sound attempts to create an illusion of location for various instruments within the original recording. The recording engineer’s goal is usually to create a stereo “image” with localization information. When a stereophonic recording is heard through loudspeaker systems rather than headphones, each ear of course hears sound from both speakers. The audio engineer may and often does use more than two microphones, sometimes many more, and may mix them down to two tracks in ways that exaggerate the separation of the instruments to compensate for the mixture that occurs when listening via speakers.

To prove their skills in this area, recording engineers used to do tricks, like having a guitar solo start in the left speaker than swing over to the right and back again.  Who doesn’t love that?   Dig the condescension in this anecdote from an audiophile blog entry about Bob Dylan:

Dylan, it seems, has never really gotten over the juke box age. When he recorded a live album with the Grateful Dead in the late 1980s, members of the band were astonished that he made the final track selection on the basis of a playback of the material not on state-of-the-art studio quality speakers but on a 30 dollar cassette player. Their conclusion was that he stills listens to music with the ears of the teenage boy who discovered the glory of rock’n’roll in mono in the L&B Café back in Hibbing, Minnesota in the mid-1950s.

Ah, mono — monaural sound.  What does Wikipedia say about that?  Not much:

Typically there is only one microphone, one loudspeaker, or, in the case of headphones or multiple loudspeakers, they are fed from a common signal path, and in the case of multiple microphones, mixed into a single signal path at some stage.

Monaural sound has been replaced by stereo sound in most entertainment applications.

Horrors!  How did we ever live that way?  Well, most of us didn’t.  The first stereo records started coming out in 1958 (the technology was already 20 years old by then, but was not commercially available).  For about a decade after that, the two modes were incompatible; your record changer could play stereo or mono, not both.  To those of us who grew up during the 60s, stereo vs. mono was like color vs. black-and-white TV.  Stereo was clearly better, just as color was clearly better.  If you were stuck with a black-and-white TV and a mono hi-fi, you were missing out.  It was like being partly blind and deaf.

However, Bob Dylan isn’t the only music legend who in the past 50 years avoided jumping onto the stereo bandwagon.  The Beatles issued mono versions of all their records until Sgt. Pepper, and John Lennon at least believed the mono mixes were superior.  Phil Spector’s 1991 remastering of his run of great hits like ” Be My Baby” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” was titled “Back to Mono,” in honor of the recording format that allowed him to build his amazing Wall of Sound

I can’t find the exact quote, but Spector once said he didn’t like stereo because a stereo recording gave too much power to the listener.  In mono, the particular mix of sounds was up to him.  By sticking to mono, he wasn’t looking backward.  Spector was probably the greatest sonic innovator in pop music.  Accounts of his recording techniques — his unusual orchestrations, his use of echo, his compelling percussion sounds, the way he fed sounds from a recording studio full of musicians into an empty one for another set of microphones to pick up — are almost as astonishing as the results.

Brian Wilson was another musical genius who preferred mono.  One might retort that Wilson’s whole world is in mono — the Beach Boys resident genius is deaf in one ear.  My response would be that, at least in his case, his one functioning ear could find more beautiful sounds in a recording studio than almost anyone else could find with two.  Stereo and mono mixes exist of his masterpiece, “Pet Sounds,” and if you ask me, the astoninshing blend of instruments is not helped by stereo.    

For years, I’ve read that the Zombies’ “Odessey and Oracle” is a lost 60’s classic, a British heir to “Pet Sounds,” so I finally picked it up the other day.  It’s pretty great, and I agree it’s amazing that of the album’s 12 tasty songs, only the hit “Time of the Season” is familiar.  The version I got has both stereo and mono mixes, and to my ears, even listening on earphones, the mono mixes sound better. 

Classical and jazz remasters from the 1940s and 50s recover the pristine origins of these old recordings, but present them in mono, because monaural masters are what they have to work with.  If you want to hear Charlie Parker or Artur Rubenstein, or the original cast recordings of shows like Oklahoma! or Kiss Me Kate, you have to settle for mono, but if that’s the music you want to hear, you won’t feel at all deprived. 

Frank Sinatra worked with the greatest pop orchestral arrangers in the world through the 1950s when he was on the Capitol label, and produced some of pop’s best recordings.  He worked with many of the same arrangers in the 1960s, and I think most Sinatra fans would agree, the results were inferior.  The “natural” separation of instruments that stereo allows sometimes calls more attention to the recording techniques and distracts from the music.   

To be sure, there are beautiful stereo recordings out there.  I’m not advocating that recording artists all reverse course.  But just as some movie-watchers apparently avoid great movies solely because they are in black and white, I hope music fans aren’t avoiding older recordings strictly because they’re in mono.  Mono is not inferior to stereo.  It’s not “unpleasant” or “unnatural” — it’s just different.  And it must mean something that so many of music’s legends seemed to prefer mono. There’s nothing stopping today’s studio whizzes from trying it again.

4 thoughts on “Vote for Mono

  1. Thanks for your ode to mono. Another recording from the 60s: a few years ago, I bought a cd of Buffalo Springfield’s first album. This came with one disc of the recording in digitally remastered stereo, and the other in (digitally remastered, I guess) mono. The liner notes I think quoted some of the band members (maybe Stills) as preferring the mono version, thus the inclusion. And man, it WAS better! “Go and Say Goodbye,” “For What It’s Worth,” etc.

    I think it was Stills in the liner notes who talked about now painstakingly they worked on the mono version in the studio to make it just right, whereas the stereo version was just a quick engineering. I dunno, maybe Phil Spector or some of his close colleagues was involved in the production of that album.

  2. Speaking of Frank Sinatra, There is a popular and exciting new group on Yahoo called THE JUDY GARLAND EXPERIENCE.The group features amazing audio files, photo’s, lively discussions, and more!
    This weekend they are having a contest where you can win unreleased concert recordings by Frank Sinatra (in Jerusalem, 1975), Barbra Streisand (in San Francisco, 1963, Judy Garland (in Chicago, 1958, Johnnie Ray (in New York, 1989), Frances Faye (in San Francisco, 1980), and others. You can hear sample tracks from all the rare CD’s at the site until tomorrow evening. Just go to

    http://movies.groups.yahoo.com/group/thejudygarlandexperience/

  3. Great article. I became a monomaniac about 10 years ago when I read that Richard Lush, the tape operator on “Sgt. Pepper,” proclaimed the mono version the only one to have. I found an LP copy, dug it, and subsequently sought out mono copies of a hell of a lot of ’60s pop. There’s not only a stronger cohesiveness to the sound, but to a startling degree a natural stereophonic quality! In “Pet Sounds,” for example, those surprising harmonicas, banjos, theremins, and feet tap-dancing in puddles all seem to place themselves in the stereo field organically, according to the drama of the song as it strikes you in the moment. That’s superior, I think, to their being shoved around and segregated by the mix engineer. Also, you don’t have to be dead-center between the speakers to hear the mix properly. And if you can find a mono copy of the UK “Revolver,” you’re in for some serious psychedelic surround-sound.

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